Architects in Their Own Homes
By Anne Levin | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon
When architects design a home, the challenge is to navigate a delicate balance between their artistic vision and the client’s demands. But when the residence they are designing is their own, a sense of freedom comes into play.
The Princeton area boasts an unusually high concentration of architects. We visited the homes of eight of them — six houses, including two married couples — and found a marked individuality in styles, approaches, and visions. One thing they all have in common: They love where they live.
J. Robert and Barbara Hillier
A 22-acre piece of land between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal in Bucks County, Pa., is the site of Autretemps, the home of the Hilliers, partners in the Princeton firm Studio Hillier. (The couple are shareholders in Witherspoon Media Group, which publishes Princeton Magazine).
“The house is totally modern, but with its construction with materials and forms that are indigenous to Bucks County, it has a casual and relaxed warmth that is often lost in modern architecture,” said Bob Hillier. “A silo, built of glass block instead of silo tiles, houses a circular stair and, at night, serves as a beacon for travelers along the river road. Local fieldstone, big timbers, and cedar siding all work with the great amounts of glass to build the warmth while providing fantastic views of the river and the surrounding terrain.”
Studio Hillier has designed numerous hospitals, corporate headquarters, libraries, schools, and multi-family residential projects, and is currently working on an eco-engineered luxury waterfront resort in the Bahamas.
The couple love their great room, which has 14-foot ceilings and incorporates the open kitchen, dining area, outside deck, and elevated working study and design studio. “This is our favorite part of the house, though the master bedroom suite with its dressing areas and spectacular bathroom overlooking the river is a very close second,” Hillier said.
The house on Linden Lane that Kirsten Thoft designed for her family was the first in Princeton to be recognized, in 2014, with Platinum LEED Certification by the United States Green Building Council. With its expansive front porch, the house fits in with the style of others on the street. Yet it has its own, distinctive touches.
The house is situated on a hill. “The lot is only 50 feet wide, but there’s an eight-foot drop from right to left,” said Thoft, who has designed renovations for homes and businesses including both Small World Coffee locations in Princeton and Wildflour Bakery/Cafe in Lawrenceville. She is currently working on a house on Valley Road. “You don’t see a lot of houses on a slope. I started by imagining it as a working building rather than a home. I also liken it to a spine with ribs, which are the beams.”
Her favorite spot in the house depends on the season. “When it’s warm, I like the front porch, or the fire pit out back,” she said. “But when it’s cold, I love sitting with a glass of wine in my comfy, leather chair in front of the fireplace.”
Most people assume that Thoft renovated the house, but it was built from scratch. “I wanted the front to read like it had always been on the street,” Thoft said. “People always seem to think it was a renovation, so I guess it’s worked.”
When she built a 2,000-square-foot house on Quarry Street in Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Rubina was looking for space, light, “and location, location, location,” she said. The house feels bigger than it is because of the strong relationship between the inside and the outside. Rubina, whose output ranges from large-scale educational and commercial buildings to single-family houses, lives there with her husband and two young sons. Her office is in a room with windows overlooking the front.
“Strong connection to the street was important to me in designing the house,” she said. “Both the kitchen and home office have large windows facing the street. It is so much fun to talk to and wave to neighbors and friends going by.”
The airy, pre-fabricated house is L-shaped, creating outdoor rooms that extend the living space. “I greatly enjoy the openness and light, but feel that we have enough privacy given that we are on a small lot in the center of town,” Rubina said. That proximity to town has allowed the architect and her husband to walk and bike to town and her children to take themselves to the library or swim class. The family has one car, housed under a carport off the street.
Building her own home gave Rubina a chance to test out techniques she would have been hesitant to try for the first time on a project for a client. “This house was my first experiment with pre-fabrication, and it allowed us to afford a home that we would not have been able to afford otherwise,” she said. “Even though some ideas worked better than others, I am very happy to come home to my living laboratory every evening.”
With their three daughters grown, Catherine Knight and her husband decided they didn’t need to stay in their large suburban home on two acres. They found an 1895 gabled Colonial on Nassau Street, in Princeton’s Jugtown Historic District, and Knight set about turning it into exactly what they wanted.
“We moved here a year ago last October,” she said, sitting in her light-filled living room overlooking a surprisingly spacious backyard and park. “I like that this house is long and narrow, with really nice light on both sides.”
Knight is known for the homes she has built and renovated locally, and as far as Nantucket and New Hampshire. She also designed the Jammin’ Crepes restaurant and LiLLiPiES Bakery in Princeton, among other projects.
Since it is in a historic district, the renovation of her own house, which included the addition of a two-and-a-half-story addition on the back and complete renovation of the front, needed extra approval. Once obtained, the project took a year to complete.
Living in town as opposed to a suburban development suits everyone in the family. “My daughters love it,” Knight said. “We can take the grandkids and throw them in the strollers and walk to town. It’s a different feel, and everybody is happy.”
When he was 24, Max Hayden bought a 19th-century house on a busy corner in Hopewell Township. He expanded the house 12 years later. And in 2007, by then married with two young children, Hayden moved the home to a nine-acre open field just down the road.
Once it was settled in its new location, Hayden designed a new addition. The connected buildings look like a stately mansion from the road, but inside, the house is cozy and comfortable. The newest section blends seamlessly into the old.
The family spends a lot of time in the new section, which has floors reclaimed from an attic of an old house in Hillsborough. Every door in the room was repurposed from other projects. “The only furniture that is not antique in that room is the upholstered furniture,” Hayden said. “The same cannot be said of the living room, where every piece is antique except one custom-made bench I pilfered from a historic design, and had made.”
Hayden, who is currently restoring a house on Green Street in Princeton and other properties in the Hopewell area, likes to hang out in the family room. “It’s really where we live,” he said. “It has the nicest light and views. It’s designed to fit in with the rest of the house. It’s actually a slightly deeper, taller version of the living room.”
David Henderson and John Hatch
When David Henderson and John Hatch bought their three-story Victorian in Trenton’s Mill Hill district three decades ago, it was a wreck in some sections, but intact in others. The back wall was collapsing and there was severe water damage. But the original decorative details in the front part of the house were in remarkable shape. The home had been empty for 25 years.
“Although the systems were from the 19th century, all of the bones of the house were good,” said Henderson, sitting with Hatch in the front parlor. “So we restored this part to what was previously here. I like this room in particular, because it has a kind of serenity, and a richness.”
The couple, who have two children, have renovated numerous houses in Mill Hill. With partner Michael Goldstein, they are currently involved in Phase II of Roebling Lofts, a mixed-use development located in former industrial buildings nearby. Phase I, which is 138 apartments, is almost completely leased.
Their home is a frequent gathering place for family, friends, and neighbors. Having lived there for so long, Henderson and Hatch are currently renovating sections that need updating. They recently added a bay window to the rear of the second floor, and are extending their first floor dining room. “When you work on your own house, you have the freedom to try out what you want,” said Hatch, who is a partner with the Trenton firm Clarke Caton Hintz. “We’ve been here a long time, we know what works and what needs to change.”
Henderson sums it up: “If you had asked us, when we were in our 20s, what our dream house would have been, we probably wouldn’t have said something like this. But this is my dream house. I love it and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”